The New Zealand Rental Vehicle Association was very generous in giving me 30 minutes to speak at their 2019 conference in Auckland in July on the subject of “Improving the Use of Child Restraints in the Rental Vehicle Industry”.
Having this time to speak in front of a captive audience of rental vehicle operators was invaluable. Below is a summary of the information I presented.
Hire Cars and Car Seats
Operators of hire car companies do their best to provide appropriate restraints to their customers. However, it is no secret that a lot of improvements could be made in this area within the rental car industry. For example, how many stories have you heard or experiences have you had in which a car hire company has provided a baby seat that is not appropriate and/or not compliant for one reason or another?
Child restraints are a necessary accessory for a rental car company to have available. But, unlike GPS systems and roof racks, child restraints are accessories that require specialist knowledge to be used correctly.
Add this need for specialist knowledge to:
- the complexities of the law;
- the layers of instructions to comply with;
- high staff turnover;
- and busy branches
and it’s no surprise that the service provided when hiring car seats is a difficult one to manage.
The rental vehicle industry is aware of the need for improvement so I was grateful they were open to having me speak at their conference. As a result, I could offer some practical steps that the industry could take to get the basics right.
Car Seat Law NZ
New Zealand law, as it applies to child restraints, states that the “DRIVER must ensure passengers under the age of 7 years use a child restraint.”
It expands on that to say:
“A DRIVER must ensure that, while the vehicle is in motion on a road, every passenger under the age of 7 years is properly restrained by an approved child restraint appropriate for that passenger.”
There are other clauses and some exceptions but this is the bottom-line, and is the simplest point to work from.
The questions I am most often asked when I speak to hire car companies are:
a. “are we legally responsible for installing the restraint,” and
b. “are we legally responsible for how the restraint is used – whether we install it or not?”
According to the law above, the answer to both of these questions would be “no”.
Both of these things, according to the law, are the responsibility of the DRIVER of the vehicle.
However, the point I make with rental vehicle operators is that there is a responsibility for hire car companies to exercise DUTY OF CARE.
Car Hire Companies and Car Seats – Duty of Care
To clarify, I interpret “exercising duty of care” to mean a rental car company has provided a family with a car seat which:
- is appropriate for their child;
- can be correctly installed in the vehicle that has also been provided;
- is compliant or LEGAL for use on our roads.
- Finally, that the car hire company has provided whatever information they can to enable the customer to use the restraint correctly.
If all of these things have not been provided, then the driver cannot fulfill their legal obligation.
So, let’s go through these points and clarify each one individually.
1. Providing a car seat appropriate for a child.
“Appropriate” refers to ensuring the child using the restraint fits within its limits. That is to say, all child restraints have limits that a child must fit within for them to use it – these are legal limits. These limits are primarily weight and/or height and/or age. These limits are always stated in the restraint’s instruction manual and, in addition, on the restraint itself. They must be, by law.
To exercise duty of care in this regard, the rental car company’s options are:
- ask the customer the child’s weight/height/age and select the child restraint for them;
- or point out to the customer that the child restraint has limits and that they must check them before they use it.
Either way, steps are being taken to fulfill duty of care.
2. Providing a car seat that can be correctly installed in the vehicle supplied.
I used top tether straps and anchor points as an example. If the instruction manual states that a restraint is required to be tethered, then this is a legal requirement and the vehicle must have an anchor point available. To clarify, without an anchor point the restraint cannot legally be used in the vehicle.
If this is the case, then the customer cannot fulfill their legal obligation.
3. Providing a car seat that is legal for use on our roads.
Unfortunately, too often I have seen families with a restraint which a rental car company has provided, not realising that it cannot be used legally for one reason or another. For instance, reasons why a child restraint may not be compliant, are:
Car Seat Expiry Dates
- Firstly, child restraints have an expiry date. Check these and make sure all car seats are within their lifespan. Polystyrene boosters are a good example – the vast majority of these are no longer within their lifespan, if any are at all. Polystyrene boosters were taken out of production so many years ago that any still in circulation are highly like to have expired.
Car Seat Safety Standards Stickers
- Secondly, there are various labels or stickers which are a legal requirement on a restraint. These are the safety standard stickers and the restraint’s limits. Over time, with wear and tear and cleaning, if these come off or are no longer legible, subsequently, the restraint is no longer compliant.
Mouldy Car Seat Harness
- Further, if the harness is mouldy the restraint should be taken out of circulation. Mould compromises the strength of fabric so the harness may no longer withstand the force it was designed to. Mould cannot be cleaned off a harness so this results in it having to be discarded. Often a harness can be replaced so, take the restraint out of circulation and resolve this – but with a mouldy harness, the restraint should not be used.
Missing Parts (Top Tether Strap)
- Finally, if a part of a restraint has come off which is required to be there, the restraint cannot be used. Top tethers are a common example that I see of this. In some cases the top tether has been removed but the restraint is still being used. Subsequently, it is being used illegally.
Once again, if any of these situations above are present, the driver cannot fulfill their legal obligation.
4. Provide information to enable the customer to use the restraint correctly.
This is simple. The customer must be given a copy of the instruction manual every time a rental car company provides a car seat for hire.
Returning to look at NZ car seat law again, it states that “a driver must ensure a passenger under 7 years old is properly restrained by an approved child restraint appropriate for that passenger”.
However, it doesn’t give us any detail about how to use a car seat.
How to use a Car Seat
Instructions on how to use a car seat all lie in the instruction manual of the particular car seat being used. So, once we know we’re complying with the law regarding the age of the child, then the car seat instruction manual becomes the law. Whatever the instruction manual says is what must be done to use that child restraint within the law. So, for a customer of a car hire company to be able to fulfill their legal obligation when using the car seat provided, they must have this. Whether they read it or not is up to them. But a hire car company has exercised duty of care by providing them with the information.
It’s not practical to give them a hard copy. But almost all manufacturers will have their manuals online. Provide the customer with a link to the instruction manual.
Duty of Care with Car Seats and Rental Car Companies – Summary
In my opinion, the four points above sum up what rental vehicle operators can do to exercise duty of care ensuring that, in turn, their customers can fulfill their legal obligation.
However, you could argue that if the law states that a driver is responsible for ensuring their passengers are correctly restrained, then all of these things we’ve covered are their responsibility to check. But would that really be reasonable?
For example, imagine a customer has arrived from a country where child restraints aren’t required, so they’ve never used one before. If this is the case, there’s a high chance English is their second language. Similarly, chances are also high that they have been traveling with a small child for at least 24 hours. Add all this up and ask the question, “Would you be exercising duty of care if you handed the family a child restraint and said it was their responsibility to use it properly?”
Let me clarify by saying that not one operator I have spoken to over the years has had that attitude, but it puts NZ car seat law into perspective within the context of the rental vehicle industry.
So, to summarise, the important things to do to exercise duty of care are:
- be aware of the LIMITS of restraints and take steps to ensure the customer is aware of these so they can check their child fits within them;
- ensure the VEHICLE provided has what is needed for a restraint to be correctly installed in it, ie anchor points if required;
- make sure restraints are COMPLIANT – check expiry dates, moldy harness, stickers etc;
- and finally, provide the customer with the restraint’s INSTRUCTION MANUAL.
Install a Car Seat Securely
Finally, I spoke briefly about how important it is to install a car seat securely.
When installing a car seat, the general rule is that it must have less than 2.5cm of movement. Referring back to how the instruction manual becomes the law relating to the use of a restraint, in most instruction manuals there will be a reference to how secure the restraint must be. And this, therefore, is the law.
Here is an example of the information about a child restraint’s movement in a car seat instruction manual.
This states how secure this restraint must be for a driver to be complying with the law.
When we talk about a restraint being secure we are only referring to restraints with built-in harnesses. This rule doesn’t apply to booster seats. In a crash, a booster needs to move forward with a child to ensure they are kept within its protective shell, so these need movement. But in a restraint with a built-in harness, this “less than 2.5cm of movement” rule applies.
How to Check a Car Seat is Installed Securely
It’s simple to check this. Once installed, just hold the child restraint beside the belt path and pull on it. If it moves more than 2.5cm it’s not installed securely enough.
Giving the customer the car seat’s instruction manual is giving them what they need to inform them of how to fulfill their legal obligation.
This reference to how much movement a restraint has is one of the most important points when dealing with child restraints. If you can move a restraint with your hand, imagine what the force of a crash at speed would do to that restraint. It must be secure.
My time was limited so I left the audience with that point. It would have been ideal to go into detail about how to achieve a secure installation but, in the context of the conference, it wasn’t practical.
Rental Car Companies and Car Seats – Training Programme
I am currently rolling out the SitTight Child Restraint Training programme for rental vehicle operators across the industry – here in New Zealand and in Australia. There are 4 large operators with it in place or being set up within their organisations. And I am in discussions with a number of others. As it stands, this means there are over 500 staff in the rental vehicle industry who have now been given access to the programme, and in turn a higher level of training in the use of child restraints, with more to come in the next couple of months.
I didn’t mention the programme at the conference as it wasn’t the place for it – the objective was to give some practical suggestions that could easily be implemented without too much cost and effort.
However, the objective of the child restraint training programme for the rental vehicle industry is to upskill the majority of rental car company staff – not just train a small number of child restraint technicians to be spread across a number of locations. I know that a lot of trainer/assessors have done valuable work with hire car companies and baby seats in the past. It’s been an issue that has needed resolving for a long time now. I believe the industry is open to making these improvements. Having me speak at their conference is evidence of this.
If you have any questions about the rental vehicle industry programme, please feel free to get in touch.